On April the 8th former British Prime Minister Maragret Thatcher died at the age of 87. Described by media as a “controversial figure” Thatcher was possibly Britain’s most loathed politician. Her death was celebrated with street parties and Glasgow and Brixton, and following a social media campaign Brits purchased the song “Ding Dong The Witch is Dead” in an effort for it to be the number one hit on the charts the week of her death.
While she left office in 1990, few have forgotten her decade in power. The Thatcher led government enacted a series of neoliberal economic reforms, the likes to which soon became vogue around the world as the end of the long economic boom following World War II meant that capitalism was no longer productive enough to provide a welfare state. The tax burden was shifted from the rich to the poor, state assets were privatised- including social housing, and the labour movement was crushed.
Before Thatcher and the conservatives came to power in 1979, 13.4% of the British population lived below the poverty line. By 1990, it had gone up to 22.2%. Unemployment hit levels not seen since the Great Depression, inequality rose and health outcomes became worse after cuts to the Nation Health Service and the deregulation of school meals. Famously she also ended a scheme that gave free milk to children, earning her the moniker “the milk snatcher”
The biggest resistance to the Thatcher government came from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) who began a strike in 1984 in response to a mine closure. The strike lasted a full year, becoming one of the most important industrial struggles in living memory. Actions of solidarity with the striking miners came from around the world, including Aotearoa. New Zealand Maritime workers donated nearly $54,000 to the miners, as well as a shipping container full on lamb.
When the union found the only way they could procure a container of New Zealand meat was to buy it from the Meat Board in London, they were advised not to tell the board what the meat was for, as not to create a dispute with the government, but once it arrived general secretary Jim Slater announced the meat was for the “striking miners in their fight with that fascist Thatcher.”
“I’m having a drink to it right now” David Hopper, of the National Union of Mineworkers in northeast England, told media on the day she died “It’s a marvellous day. I’m absolutely delighted. It’s my 70th birthday today and it’s one of the best I’ve had in my life.”
Also despised for her foreign policy, Thatcher took the country to war with Argentina over the Falkland islands, at one point giving the order to sink a retreating ship, killing 323 people. She supported the apartheid government in South Africa and called Nelson Mandala a terrorist. She described Indonesian dictator Suharto as “one of our best and most valuable friends” and supported Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was also implementing neoliberal market reforms- while killing dissidents.
While people have celebrated in the streets some commentators have been more cynical, pointing out that Thatcher’s death hasn’t actually changed anything. Unfortunately, these commentators are largely correct. When asked what she considered her greatest achievement Margaret Thatcher is said to have answered “New Labour”. Indeed after gaining power the British Labour party did little to reverse the reforms of the Thatcher era.
In Britain today the Conservative led government is implementing punitive welfare reforms, including the infamous “bedroom tax” where peoples welfare entitlements will be reduced if they have an unoccupied bedroom in their home. While lower than 1980s levels unemployment is still high and union membership remains low.
Here in New Zealand, a country where the Labour party didn’t just adopt neoliberalism, it introduced it, the current National led government is privatising state assets, introducing the same sort of welfare reform as the UK, and presiding over a country with increasing inequality and poverty.
Any celebration of Thatcher’s death should really be a celebration of resistance to “Thatcherism” a resistance that is continuing- and must continue- today. Capitalist politicians will die, but until capitalism itself dies the issues of poverty and inequality will remain, this system is unlikely to again be able to offer the prosperity of the post war decades.
As for what remains of Thatcher herself, director Ken Loach has put it best; “How should we honour her? Let’s privatise her funeral, put it out to competitive tender and accept the cheapest bid. It’s what she would have wanted.”